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Spicer is the mercenary who, in two years, caused two international incidents. The first was in Papua New Guinea in 1997, where he was hired by the government to recapture the island of Bougainville from separatists. Spicer was seized by resentful army officers, and the subsequent row brought down the Papuan government. The second was in Sierra Leone in 1998, where, with the covert blessing of British diplomats, he imported weapons for troops trying to restore an ousted government. The ensuing scandal almost forced the resignation of the British foreign secretary.
In principle, mercenaries are regulated by the 1870 Foreign Enlistment Act. It’s an offence to assist the armed forces “of a foreign state at war with any foreign state at peace with Her Majesty.” But no one has ever been prosecuted for it, and the act is widely regarded as useless. The government has avoided the need to test it by deciding that some people are terrorists, and therefore contravene a different set of laws, while others are businessmen, and therefore contravene no laws. Their classification depends on their nationality (British subjects, for example, cannot be detained without charge or trial in Belmarsh); the identity of the government they intend to fight or support; and their ideology (if they believe in what they are doing, they are terrorists, if they do not they are businessmen).
The government’s consultation paper reads like a PR brochure for the dogs of war. “There is nothing wrong with governments employing private sector agents abroad in support of their interests”; hiring mercenaries is “a cost effective way of procuring services which would once have been the exclusive preserve of the military” and “a strong and reputable private military sector might have a role in enabling the UN to respond more rapidly and more effectively in crises.”